Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

23 Nov 2012

(Novel Series) Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) by: George R.R. Martin

(Reaction) A List of Thought and Mien by: Antonio Conejos

Everyone likes lists and coming up with pseudo-mystical maxims from books (I'm looking at you people who love quoting from Art of War) so for fun I've come up with some points to think about from Game of Thrones. To be read with some salt and sometimes tongue in cheek.

This reaction considers events up to A Dance with Dragons.

Yes, there be spoilers ahead!

1. The sly tongue is mightier than a brawny arm

The Game of Thrones is won not by those most skilled in battle but those who are able to incite battle amongst others. The series is littered with great warriors, both young and old, who played the greatest game and lost.

From the old guard there is King Robert, a fearsome warrior brought low by drink and politics. Eddard Stark by all accounts was an admirable leader and soldier, but his success on the battlefield does not bring him victory in the halls of court.

From the young there is the Young Wolf (Rob Stark) and John Snow; both undefeated in battle, winning against overwhelming odds. Yet both succumb to treachery off the battlefield.

Indeed, the most successful of the whole bunch of characters is Little Finger, a decidedly unmartial man. From an origin of common birth he has risen to be Lord of the Vale whilst remaining unscathed while everyone else is consumed by the rebellion, civil war and anarchy he instigated. All that and by his side he has the beautiful daughter of the woman he has been lusting for all his life. A successful man, indeed.

2. Idealism kills

Winter was coming but not even the Starks may have realized how cold the chill would be. The Starks, perhaps alone among the Houses of Westeros, are the ideal rulers - caring and just to their subjects, prudent with their resources, steadfast in their vows. They govern well.

Yet winter falls hardest on Winterfell as the Starks are decimated by the political turmoil of Westeros. They lose their patriarch (Eddard) and his heir (Robb) in rapid succession as well as their lands, their bannermen, even their home.

Idealism does not save the Starks. Moreover, it dooms them as they steadfastly refuse to play the game of favors, intrigue and deception which all the other Houses are playing.

That idealism kills can be seen as well in Daenerys Stormborn. After she secures the genesis of an army - with her dragons, her Dothraki, her Unsullied - she begins a crusade against slavers instead of marching off to Westeros. This quest to end slavery bogs down in her tenuous grasp on Meereen, a city also being undone by civil war and anarchy.

Like the Starks, Daenerys's intentions are noble and like the Starks she discovers that idealism evaporates when faced with ambition, lust for power and conspiracy. For both the Starks and Daenerys idealism not only kills members of their family but more importantly the people they respectively command. It is the subjects themselves who bear the brunt of woe when idealism fails.

One need only read about Astapor to know the limits of idealism.

3. Vengeance kills

Game of Thrones is animated by the memory of hate. Everyone has a grievance against everyone else. Moreover all are keen to sharpen their swords in memory of those slights.

Daenerys (and her brother before her) is intent on reclaiming her throne from the usurpers and avenging the brutal murder of her family. House Martell is also keen to avenge the death of the last Targaryen family as Princess Elia Martell was part of those brutally slain.

These murders echo into the present as Oberyn Martell was slain while trying to avenge his sister Elia against her butcherer, Gregor Clegane, the Mountain. In turn the daughters of the Red Viper have vowed to avenge their father.

Each death sets up cascading domino trails of further misery.

Robb Stark dishonors House Frey which leads to the Red Wedding which leads to the resurrection of Catelyn Stark who in turn takes it upon herself to hunt down all those involved in the heinous breach of all the rites of hospitality and conduct.

The novels themselves acknowledge the absurdity of blood feuds in the history of Houses Blackwood and Bracken. Here are two clans hopelessly intermarried yet they continue to squabble over the same patches of land, the same quarrels, even after the passage of thousands of years.

Vengeance is a seed that bears much fruit; fruit which eventually poisons the entire orchard.

4. Pretty much everything kills

Game of Thrones is a brutal world and death is meted out equally to the just and the wretched, the brave and the undeserving.

Ultimately then death is morally neutral, the bad guys do not end up on the wrong end of the stick; often times in the novels they are the ones wielding the triumphant sword.

5. We see what we want to see/Everything can be a sign

The red comet, which goes by many names in the books, is a good example of latching on to a sign that has no relation to that which is hoped for. Every faction takes the red comet as a sign of victory for their own cause. Yet all (except for perhaps Daenerys) are proven wrong.

Chief among these seers who see only what they want to is Melisandre. Despite her faulty interpretation of Stannis's destiny she still clings desperately to it. She has built up Stannis as the savior of the world from the very beginning and performed many a dark art (Renly's assassination) for his benefit; it is too late for her to announce she was mistaken in anointing Stannis as the Lord of Light's champion. Melisandre has become too invested in her mistake and while she does harbor doubts occasionally in private, in public her support for Stannis is unequivocal.

We can become invested in the meaning ascribed to signs instead of seeking to puzzle out something for ourselves or correcting a previously erroneous interpretation.

Indeed, as pointed out by another writer whose stories are also streaked with drama, jealousy and murder, the fault lies not in our stars but within ourselves.

6. Frailty, thy name is woman

A definite misogynistic streak runs through Game of Thrones. Many of the women in power have schemed to get there. Perhaps more damningly, once they get there they make a complete mess of governing. Cersei illustrates this mad scheming, and unfitness, for power.

Cersei though is not alone in this regard. Melisandre schemes and burns people for the sake of her god and king. Lady Catelyn is a mad revenant. Queen Selyse (Stannis's wife) is a devout fool who is a poor judge of people's character. The vipers of Dorne are impulsive, keen more to quench their thirst for revenge rather than dwelling on what is best for the people they lead.

While there are evil men in Game of Thrones (Littlefinger) there are men of virtue as well (the Starks but there are a lot of other examples as well, even the Imp is quite virtuous in his way).

In contrast, there are hardly any exemplary women. Even Brienne, devout and brave, is often scorned by all the other characters for being, because of her size and strength, more man than maid. Both Sansa and Arya, who appear to have the same nobility of their brothers, are perpetually trapped by events (the former) or seeking to forget their past (the latter).

While there are tertiary female characters who may have admirable qualities (Val, the wildling princess) they have not impacted the plot in any substantial manner. As such, it remains to be seen whether they can be effective foils to the evil in the world.

The above only describes the female nobility of Game of Thrones. At least the upper born women have an opportunity to rise in the ranks and have their voices heard.

Women of the common folk are treated much worse. Indeed, the novels are replete with instances of casual rape and pillaging (both the Dothraki and Ironborn have evolved extensive customs surrounding the taking of women). It is not easy being female in Westeros, where one can be beset at any moment by men who want your property, your chastity and finally, your life.

It is from the common folk though that a rare example of a tough woman who does the right thing emerges. Osha has been faithful to the Starks with Bran and Rickon owing their lives to her. Yet she, and Rickon, have vanished from the plot of the novels; presumably we will hear more about them soon.

Review:

I'm not really a fan of the fantasy genre but the Game of Thrones novels (more properly known by the series name, A Song of Ice and Fire) have been quite enthralling. My beef with a lot of fantasy novels is that there seems to be a lot of pointless walking around. This is why I couldn't get into the Wheel of Time series.

There is a palpable sense of progression though in A Song of Ice and Fire. Things happen, often times brutally; often times to characters you least expect.

Personally I keep reading the novels in the expectation of the reuniting of the Stark family, or what's left of it. The series began with the Starks setting out from home and then subsequently being scattered every which way. Many will not be around for the reunion, if George RR Martin sees fit for there to be a reunion in the first place.

Many of the narrative arcs (excepting the Daenerys plot) revolve around describing the difficulties of the Stark siblings and the consequences of their actions. There is John on the Wall, Bran under the mountain, Arya in far off Braavos, Sansa in Littlefinger's household and Lady Catelyn's murderous vendetta.

The Starks serve as touchstones for the plot and after all they've been through it's only natural to want them to find some solace in seeing each other again. That's why the Red Wedding was doubly harsh - not only is Robb killed but it seemed for awhile that Arya would finally be reunited with her brother and mother; but just when it seemed to be so, the killing began.

I hope though the subsequent novels pick up the pace from the earlier books. In A Dance with Dragons, Daenerys seems to have gotten bogged down in Meereen and the plot along with her.

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